“Our potential is one thing. What we do with it is quite another.” ― Angela Duckworth
“Stress happens when something you care about is at stake. It’s not a sign to run away – it’s a sign to step forward.” ― Kelly McGonigal
“There’s nothing you can’t do if you get the habits right.” ― Charles Duhigg
A version of this blog post has long existed in the back of my mind.
It’s had multiple beginnings, different takeaways, but never a clear ending. The idea has never stopped morphing and evolving, growing alongside me. The thing is, I’ve never felt good enough to actually write this post. Instead, I’ve carried it with me across state lines, through deserts, over mountains, and occasionally to the beach, where I’ve protected it with a generous dose of high spf sunscreen.
Because how do I go about writing an expository essay (full of my trademark wit and signature charm) that adequately sums up one of the biggest lessons of my 20s? How can I succinctly summarize a journey that began 5 years ago — when I graduated college and started this blog — to who I am now and the person I hope to become? How do I write about a journey I’m still on?
Stories are powerful things, and the stories we believe about ourselves are perhaps the most important of all. So let’s start there, with a story. And let’s start NOW before I give up trying to figure out 3 years worth of WordPress updates I’ve missed…
Four years ago, this story would have begun with a drive through the desert in the middle of the night. The pitch dark suddenly gives way to city lights up ahead, and I wonder what this new place has in store for me.
Three and a half years ago, this story would have started with my first night alone in this new city. I probably would have included real excerpts from my journal entry that night, where I chronicled all my doubts and openly questioned what in the world had compelled me to leave everything I knew.
But instead, you’ll get the version that begins 2 years ago, the one where I am in a classroom at a prestigious institution, beginning my PhD. Instead of city lights, you’ll get the blue light coming off my laptop screen, a screen which features my computer terminal, open and ready for me to type in some commands. Except this is the first time I have EVER opened the terminal because this is my introduction to coding. The professor asks who has experience with any type of programming. More than half the class raises their hand, and I feel the panic begin to set in.
The panic is fully underway by the next class. And I’ll never forget what happens next. The professor explains a basic programming concept, but it’s so novel and foreign to me that it goes completely over my head. I feel it then, deep in my gut: “Oh my gosh… I am going to fail… I am going to drop out.” I don’t think I’ll make it even through the first week, let alone the rest of the semester.
For the first 3 months of my PhD, I was miserable. I was starting over in yet another new city, living with strangers, and desperate for genuine friendship. But most of all, I felt really stupid. Like all the time. I remember a meeting I had with a different professor that went terribly. I left that office feeling so small and dejected, I struggled not to cry on the shuttle ride home.
In retrospect, I think I had never genuinely felt stupid, nor had I ever faced an obstacle this big with so much on the line. High school, college, my MA — I never once doubted that I would graduate. So now that I experienced real doubt, any doubt at all was sufficient to terrify me, even though I hadn’t actually failed yet. As Michelle Obama puts it in her memoir, Becoming: “Failure is a feeling long before it becomes an actual result.” I felt like I was tumbling down the side of a steep hill, rocks and jagged edges scratching my limbs as I desperately attempted to cling onto anything that would halt my fall.
Now we get to the part of the post where I’m supposed to distill my singular secret to success and contentment. But let me remind you that you are reading the ramblings of a 27 year-old, who is still PhD-less by the way, so if you want someone who has it all figured out and/or has a PhD, I suggest picking up someone else’s memoir.
Anyways, this has turned out to be quite the puzzle for me, one I’ve pondered for months. Perhaps the real reason I decided to finally write this post was to figure out for myself what changed and document it so that I may recall God’s faithfulness in my next difficult season.
My current working hypothesis is the following: that when faced with an obstacle I was struggling to overcome, I fell back on a slew of gritty habits I’ve spent a lifetime cultivating.
I don’t have the answers, but let me tell you what’s helped.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.Philippians 4:6
My season of fear and doubt began long before I ever stepped into that classroom; it started at least a year earlier, when I was deciding whether to apply for PhD programs at all. Not only was applying a time-consuming (and expensive!) process, deciding to attend a doctoral program is a monumental decision. A PhD requires a lot of sacrifice, both financially and emotionally, not to mention time-wise considering it’s a 5+ year commitment.
In the end, I decided to apply.
But I wouldn’t just apply; I decided to go all out. I only wanted to do this once, so I’d give it my all, craft the best applications I possibly could, and see how far I could go. But through the entire process, my prayer to God was simple and direct, “Lord, this is what I believe you want me to do. If it’s not, make it very clear to me and close these doors.” For 9 months, that was my prayer. For 9 months, I chronicled these prayers in journals. So when the decisions came back, with funding offers so over the top it was truly an embarrassment of riches, God’s answer was clear: “Go.”
Now let’s jump back to actually carrying through with this. The first gritty habit I fell back on was prayer and journaling. I prayed desperately and fervently, and I continued writing. And because I had documented my previous prayers, God reminded me of His goodness. Everything felt so overwhelming and difficult that I quite literally couldn’t lean on my own understanding, and so I began to trust God in new ways. Amidst my great insecurities, I became confident in this — that God had brought me here, to this place and to these people, and He would neither leave me nor forsake me. As alone and incompetent as I felt, God reassured me that He was with me always, and He would provide what I needed to carry out His will.
What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.Ecclesiastes 1:9
The one who gets wisdom loves life; the one who cherishes understanding will soon prosper.Proverbs 19:8
A lot of energy can go into bouts of indecision. When I made the choice to stay, this freed up the mental and emotional resources required to make the necessary changes to reduce the risk of failure.
One of the follies of youth is believing your emotions and life circumstances are unique to you, that no one else has experienced what you yourself have gone through. In reality, our life narratives are full of tropes, and there is much to learn from others’ stories.
Which brings me to my second gritty habit: reading and learning. I started reading anything and everything I thought might be helpful — self-help books, pop science books, health books, memoirs, biographies, and so on. I listened to audiobooks wherever I went, consuming more books than ever before (which is saying a lot considering I’ve been a voracious reader my entire life). The term I’m using in this post, ‘gritty habits,’ is a nod to two books that changed the course of my first year: Angela Duckworth’s Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance and Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. The former changed the way I viewed myself, and the latter changed the way I viewed my actions.
Dr. Duckworth defines grit as “a combination of passion and perseverance for a singularly important goal.” Her website adds the following:
“One way to think about grit is to consider what grit isn’t. Grit isn’t talent. Grit isn’t luck. Grit isn’t how intensely, for the moment, you want something. Instead, grit is about having what some researchers call an ”ultimate concern” – a goal you care about so much that it organizes and gives meaning to almost everything you do. And grit is holding steadfast to that goal. Even when you fall down. Even when you screw up. Even when progress toward that goal is halting or slow. Talent and luck matter to success. But talent and luck are no guarantee of grit. And in the very long run, I think grit may matter as least as much, if not more.”Angela Duckworth
This book isn’t perfect, but I read it at the perfect time. It gave me hope and importantly, a sense of agency over my circumstances. See up until that moment, I had been operating under a “fixed” mindset rather than a “growth” mindset. I believed I wasn’t cut out for the more technical aspects of research, but I realized that through a lot of hard work and effort, I could improve my weaker skills. I concluded that I was passionate enough about my research goals that I was willing to learn whatever it took to get there, and I had the capability to do just that.
While I could write much more about grit — not to mention that I’ve said practically nothing about habits nor will I even get to how I changed my approach to stress (see Kelly McGonigal’s work on the benefits of stress) — my point here is this: reading widely gave me novel strategies to tackle problems new to me but not others.
Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.Proverbs 15:22
And now in the style of a classic, overly-ambitious 3-point sermon since this blog post is already quite preachy (Sorry!), we’ve arrived at my last gritty habit for today: surround yourself with wise counsel. (To clarify, I have relied on more than just 3 habits, but the rest I’m saving for the book deal.) Whether it’s family or friends, we must discern whose advice we take to heart and whose input we choose to disregard.
When I was deciding what PhD program to attend, I took forever to make a decision and dragged my poor family through the process. No but actually, I made the process quite terrible for everyone involved, to the point where I think we’ve all sort of blocked it out. For weeks, I was having regular phone calls with close family members, taking their input into careful consideration. It was exhausting… but it spared me from making what was likely a terrible life decision (okay but plz no one tell my brothers I’ve now admitted to this).
Meanwhile, my academic peers thought I was crazy for elevating my family’s advice to the same level as my professors. From their perspective, they couldn’t fathom how my family could counsel me on things like research fit or choosing the right advisor, but I couldn’t imagine making such a major life decision without speaking to the people most important to me. My family also offered advice others couldn’t because not only did they know me best, I also trusted they wanted the best for me. I knew that no one else was praying for me as much as they were, and this was something I didn’t take lightly.
When I reflect on my past successes, it’s never just me up on that stage; there is a whole community of people who have helped me get there. Friends who have kept reaching out and praying with me. Mentors who have helped me work through all manner of struggles. Family who continue to speak Truth into my life whatever the circumstances. Thus, when I felt like I couldn’t go on, it was my support network that stepped in and urged me on. As I spoke openly about my anxieties, time and time again, this community reminded me who I was in Christ.
Much of this is due to God’s providence, but it also didn’t happen just by chance. I’ve intentionally sought out wise counsel, purposefully invested in these relationships, and practiced being willing to listen (which is easier said than done). Community-building, like anything else, is a skill that requires time, practice, and lots of effort.
“So what are you up to nowadays?” and other difficult questions
When people learn that I’m doing a PhD, they usually comment on how “smart” or “brilliant” I must be. What they don’t realize is that I’m not a genius or even that talented; I’m just extremely gritty when it comes to my goals. People sometimes treat my life story as somehow exceptional or that this comes easily to me, when in reality, the risk of failure is still high and the panic that began in that classroom has never fully gone away. The difference is that it no longer consumes me. Rather than getting lost and overwhelmed by the big picture, I’ve learned to focus on perfecting the small, everyday actions that make the difference in the long run.
When you pursue a difficult goal for a long period of time, you eventually get used to it being difficult. You become accustomed to being uncomfortable. I still contemplate dropping out at least once a week, but now rather than just thinking this is SO hard; I should just give up, I now think wow this is hard; let’s keep going. It’s become a daily decision to keep moving forward even when I don’t feel like it. Perhaps not surprisingly, doing something difficult in one area of my life has sparked changes in other areas, prompting me to pursue new goals and tackle other obstacles that scare me.
So consider this blog post a hastily written letter from someone still in the thick of it. I don’t know what will happen when I graduate, but I do know this — any thing worth doing is likely pretty difficult, so learning how to pursue difficult things is a worthwhile endeavor.
I know it’s been a long time since my last post, even longer since I was a regular blogger, and I probably won’t be back any time soon, but my prayer is that you’ll be encouraged by this glimpse into what God is teaching me, that you may be emboldened to pursue the difficult things God is calling you to do.
Meanwhile, I’ll now return to my relative obscurity and thinly veiled anonymity…